Why You Need to Learn to Empathize with Your Spouse
- Dr. David B. Hawkins The Marriage Recovery Center
- 2016 30 Aug
We all long to be heard and understood. There is nothing quite like the sensation of having someone sit with us while we share our heart, whether in joy or in sorrow. We want someone who will completely share our experience.
This is most effectively done through empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
For as much as we all want this experience, however, many never truly have it. Many never truly share the feelings of another. They may listen and even give intellectual understanding, but they rarely share the feelings of another.
In a recent Marriage Intensive counseling session, the couple hit the empathic roadblock.
“I’d like you to really understand what it’s like to find out your husband has been looking at porn,” Sandra said firmly. Her anger was only slightly suppressed.
“I do understand,” Harry responded.
“You can’t possibly understand,” Sandra continued. “Unless it has happened to you, there is no way you can feel what I’m feeling.”
“Well,” Harry stammered. “I guess that’s right. But I have heard you tell me how horrible it has been to catch me looking at porn. I’m ashamed of it myself.”
“But,” she said, getting angrier, “I’ve caught you before and you have never really stopped. So, I can’t imagine you know the impact this has had on me.”
Harry paused, looking at his wife. He was now getting more upset.
He then turned to me and said, “I don’t know what to say now. I am sorry, but clearly my words don’t mean anything to her. She stays angry with me. I will never do this right and it’s very frustrating.”
“They don’t mean anything because I don’t think you really mean it,” Sandra said angrily, her voice rising. “I don’t think you can ever know the pain you’ve caused me.”
Harry looked over at me again, seeking help.
Perhaps you’ve been where Sandra and Harry find themselves. She is hurting and feeling alone. She wants him to feel a “Godly sorrow” for his actions and turn away from them. As critical as that is, she wants him to feel her pain—to empathize with her.
The Apostle Paul clearly had empathy and compassion in mind when he penned these words:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
If you find yourself struggle with empathy, or find that your mate struggles to truly understand and empathize with you, consider these action steps:
First, create an agreement to cultivate empathy. Empathy is a skill that often must be cultivated. Agree together that you will develop and maintain empathy in your marriage. Be clear with one another what empathy means, what it looks like and how you both want it expressed.
Second, create an environment for empathy. Empathy has a better chance of occurring in an environment of trust and deep respect. It is not likely to occur where there is criticism, ridicule and constant correction. It will not occur where one or both mates experience fear. Work together to develop a trusting environment where you practice empathy.
Third, create clear feelings with which to empathize. Your mate will not learn to share your feelings if you don’t share them. Take great care to share feelings, not opinions or accusations. For example, sharing “I feel unloved,” will land much better than “I feel like you don’t love me.” The first is a clear feeling; the second is a judgment.
Fourth, create a climate for correction. Marriage is a great place for growth, assuming you are receptive and willing to grow. Your mate is the best person on the planet to give you feedback on how your efforts at empathizing with him or her are working. Use this resource wisely.
Finally, create an encouraging atmosphere to reinforce efforts at empathy. We are always growing. We never fully get it. Be kind and gentle to your mate as they practice listening to you well. Give encouragement liberally—it’s always appreciated!
Do you know how to empathize? If not, we can help. Please send responses to me at email@example.com and also read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website and learn about our Personal and Marriage Intensives.
Publication date: August 30, 2016